What Is a Primary Deficiency in Nutrition?

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Primary nutritional deficiency is one of the most basic types of malnutrition, and occurs in people who do not have enough nutrients in their diet. According to the Kid’s Health website, malnutrition is one of the most prevalent causes of infant mortality, with about 10 children dying of malnutrition each minute. Primary nutritional deficiency is generally reversible when the person begins eating enough nutritious food.


Primary nutritional deficiency typically occurs because a person doesn't get enough of certain vital nutrients. Since your body requires a steady supply of different nutrients, primary nutritional deficiencies can affect your organs, tissues and bone. Some common conditions of malnutrition include: fatigue, dizziness, decaying teeth, swollen gums, poor immune function, slowed reaction times, poor growth, muscle weakness, learning problems, bloated stomach and osteoporosis. Unlike secondary malnutrition, primary nutritional deficiency can generally be resolved by eating foods or taking supplements to provide the missing nutrients.

Primary vs. Secondary

Secondary malnutrition occurs when the body’s ability to absorb nutrients is limited by a condition or illness. These conditions can include celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, lactose intolerance, pancreatic insufficiency and pernicious anemia. Additionally, organ failure can reduce your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. For example: According to a study published in a 1980 issue of “Journal of Pathology," severe alcoholism can harm the liver, pancreas and intestines, resulting in secondary malnutrition. Because of the wide potential of underlying causes, secondary malnutrition can be more challenging to treat than primary nutritional deficiency.

How it Works

Adequate nutritional support is most essential for infants, adolescent children and pregnant women. Each of these require a stable supply of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to support exponential growth of tissues or organs. Children with primary nutritional deficiency can develop a condition called marasmus, characterized by a thin body and stunted growth. Children deficient in protein can develop an enlarged liver, edema or delayed development as a result of a serious condition called kwashiorkor. Folic acid deficiencies in pregnant women can lead to birth defects and other adverse conditions. Lastly, many minerals and nutrients -- such as vitamin D -- play a crucial role in bone formation, and can result in rickets and osteomalacia in adults with nutritional deficiencies.

Safety Concerns

To reduce your risk of primary nutritional deficiency, simply adopt a balanced diet rich in nutritious foods, including whole grains, leafy greens, fruits and lean proteins. Most adults can get enough of the required nutrients while following a diet with 2,000 calories per day. One way of reducing your risk of primary nutritional deficiency is to limit empty-calorie foods such as soft drinks and candy, which add calories but have no significant nutritional value.